Thursday, January 15, 2015

Kites Don’t Fly by Themselves: Sankranthi Thoughts for Careers to Fly!

Today, January 15 is Makara Sankranthi (also called Pongal), a farm and rural oriented festival that is celebrated in an inclusive manner by all sections of the Hindu society in all regions of India. It is also one of the few Hindu festivals that falls on either January 14 or 15 each year consistently. It is a harvest festival celebrated with great gusto and many expectations of good times in the traditionally agrarian Indian economy. The day, celebrated as Solar festival, also marks the transition of Sun into Makara Rasi (Zodiac sign of Capricon), marking the beginning of Uttarayana punya kaalam (or good, holy period). It is actually the second day of a three (in some regions, four) day festival, which connotes the much hoped for transition of families into a better period, most of the expectations being boosted by agricultural harvest starting to come to hand.

Like most Hindu festivals, Sankranthi is a socially and economically inclusive festival knitting together rural and urban communities, bringing respect to livestock especially bulls and cows, the rural storytellers (Haridasulu), spreading joys to children through new clothes, bringing out kolam skills of womenfolk with a unique focus on ‘gobbillu’, and bringing a truly festive and feasting ambience into the families. The making of Pongal is a particular highlight of Sankranthi. The festival is also marked by a variety of games and sports, some of them controversial and are not necessarily respectful of livestock or people safety. Amongst these, kite flying is a particularly favourite pastime for the festival, and the season. No wonder that Amitabh Bachchan, the brand ambassador of the State of Gujarat is seen participating in the kite festival. Kites, however, have many lessons to teach us as this blog post seeks to analyze.

From fun to fear

Kites are some of the simplest of manmade inventions that are designed and manufactured to fly in appropriate wind conditions. Originally small hard papers or card boards of square or triangular shapes, reinforced and ribbed by slim, flexible wooden reapers on all sides and across, with a paper tail and controlled by an attached spool of thread, modern day kites have assumed multiple shapes, colours and styles. From a fun pastime, kite flying has now become a competitive community pastime, with seasons like Sankranthi making skies an awesome mosaic of flying kites of all shapes and hues. As with most competitive pastimes, kite flying also has become a victim of aggressive behaviour. Flying kites in residential areas has become a threat to individual and bird safety while flying kites with maanza (threads covered with ground glass) has become real and imminent danger to human and bird life, in any area.

The first lesson of kite flying is that when competitive modernity overwhelms cautious tradition, the result is an unbridled stoking of competitive intensity and aggressive ruthlessness in a society. Be it work or exercise, sport or game, moderation is the key to universal joy out of routine activities. Resources can buy us more sophisticated kites and longer, stronger threads for kites; however, somewhere along the line one loses the basic togetherness of the pastime which is obliterated by a ‘win at any cost’ drive.  Professional and personal life needs to be lived joyously despite the competitiveness of various ‘career flying tools’ like marque institutions, custom degrees and choice specializations that money and efforts can secure. Who wins in the New India with individual career kites is of lesser relevance than painting the global sky with the India Tricolour in a fun-filled manner, collectively.

Nature as ally

One may design a beautiful or aerodynamic kite but without wind a kite cannot just fly! Yet when winds are gusty and turbulent, the design does play a part in the kite sustaining itself and even riding over the storms. There are clearly some natural conditions that make kite flying a joy, for example, open grounds, vast parks, long beaches etc. A windy day is a must but a light breeze may also be helped by appropriate kite-friendly hill terrains. Design and nature make perfect allies but one should never forget that without supporting nature a kite would never fly. It is, of course, for the designs to make the kites as the tethered flying objects with appropriate aerodynamic lift, leveraging various materials and shapes.

Design as a long term sustainable endeavour has to ally with, rather than fight the nature. From the movement of allopathic medicine from chemically derived synthetic drugs to protein derived biologics, and from genetically guided personalized medicine to stem cell based regenerative medicine, it is clear that allying with nature provides more sustainable solutions. Exploitation of natural resources or impacting beach fronts and hillsides with constructions even if they are calamity resistant are known to have caused profound ecological imbalances. Careers, likewise, get established in the right way when set up to meet appropriate environmental/business conditions. The careers take flight with beneficial organizational lift. Design of careers, at the same time, has to be robust enough to withstand or take advantage of the turbulence. A savvy finance executive knows how to garner fund inflows as much as how to hedge outflows, for example.

Launchers and flyers

While there can be kite flying by just a single person, kite flying becomes optimal when a ‘launcher’ and ‘flyer’ join together to determine the right distance between the kite (in the hands of the launcher) and the spool (in the hands of the flyer), and also the right angle and the right glide with which the kite can be launched. The launcher and flyer are collaborators in the game of kite flying with the shared objective of acting as per the wind direction. They are willing to reimagine themselves in each other’s position if the wind reverses its direction. They join and enjoy the fun of running with kite, lowering and re-launching the kite as required. They support each other in the ups and downs of kite’s trajectory using their resilience to supplement the ups and downs of wind energy.

Ideally in life, just as kites require launchers and flyers, all careers also require launchers and flyers. The recruiting panel, more specifically the human resources experts, are the launchers while the managers are the flyers. Sharp identification of talent, right placement and right launch of a career with the right glide path are essential components of a right launch pad for a successful and sustainable career. The flyer who holds the threaded spool needs to understand the kite (the aspiring employee) as much as the wind (the business environment). The kite may be (and need to be) designed and made with the best of design tools, material composition and manufacturing aids but the operating skills of the launchers and flyers determine the heights to which a kite can fly.   
Thread of accountability

The kite is flown with a very fine balance of freedom and control. If the individual were to let go of the kite, it may fly higher initially but will quickly drift to hostile terrains (trees or hills, for example) and eventually destroy itself. On the other hand, a kite which is held always tightly will never soar to the heights which it can rightfully soar to. In some case, tight handling of thread may damage the hands of the flyer himself! The thread and the holder are the enabler in wind conditions that are right, and also are the protector in wind conditions that are hostile. The one who runs with the kite, constantly assessing the winds and the heights and the topography, enjoys kite flying with safety and fulfillment.  In fact, under certain circumstances like wind not being there, the holder himself feels accountable and responsible to generate wind flow for the kite by running vigorously, and keep the kite flying.

The thread of accountability and empowerment in organizations and career development has a lot to benefit by mimicking the above analogy. The manager (the flyer) should have a fine understanding of the individual and his or her competencies (the kite and its design), the business conditions (the atmospheric conditions) and the flexibility the organization provides for career progression (the length and strength of the thread). The strategic skill of the manager lies in understanding all the dynamics and providing the employee with the right balance of empowerment and accountability. Like with kites that fly to greater heights, mutual ownership and timely readjustments are an essential part of careers soaring to greater highs.

Kites don’t fly; no ‘kite-flying’!     

One of the principal features of successful flying of kites is a readiness to quickly judge the relative wind velocity and letting the kite fly. Hesitant and repetitive testing of winds perpetuates a low level kite flight as the conditions tend to be ever-dynamic. From high winds to no-breeze through mild breeze, there is both challenge and opportunity to keep a kite flying. Organizational kite-flying of a different nature, of testing the waters through speculative intent and expression, can never let careers fly. In fact, ‘kite-flying’ which also connotes testing a thought for response based on which it is executed or disavowed is probably a legitimate practice in political discourses challenged by extreme plurality. Kite-flying of that nature in purposeful organizations can, however, render them, and the team members political and disoriented.

Kites are great to experience, simple to make, easy to fly and attractive to watch. Likewise, employee careers in organizations are a joy to individuals and beneficial to organizations. But like kites, careers cannot fly by themselves. As this blog post proposes, careers need to be seen as vehicles for joy and fulfillment in life but with needed appreciation and competencies. Careers need to be competitive for business growth but should not be supportive of self-destructive aggression. Careers, like kites, are enabled to fly by a host of natural considerations, design aspects, collaborative skills and managerial skills. The key for managers and employees is to appreciate the fulfillment that could accrue from a fine operating skill marked by a judicious balance of accountability and empowerment. Indian business like the Indian environment has lot of natural energy and business drift that can help careers fly, and firms scale greater heights.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on January 15, 2015